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April '20 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 



Doctor Dolittle, who could talk to the animals, has not been well-served onscreen: there was the ill-fated 1967 musical version with Rex Harrison, the enjoyable slight 1998 Eddie Murphy remake, and now this pointless reboot with a scenery-chewing Robert Downey (sporting a broad Welsh accent) as the good doctor who’s made himself a recluse after his wife dies, and the talking animals and enterprising children coax him back to life.




Director Stephen Gaughan is interested only in big set pieces, so the movie is less a coherent narrative than a series of disjointed sequences that show off the cute anthropomorphic animals, voiced by celebrities from Emma Thompson and Ralph Fiennes to Marion Cotillard and Selena Gomez. Young children might find some appeal to this harmless but ineffectual remake. The HD transfer looks stellar.


Just Mercy 

(Warner Bros)

The inspiring story of a real-life hero, lawyer Bryan Stevenson, is dramatized in this compelling if overlong courtroom procedural about the lengthy but eventually successful appeal of the wrongful conviction of Walter McMillan, a black man from rural Alabama railroaded onto death row for a still unsolved murder.




Director/co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton has a fine eye for detail, and his cast—Jaime Foxx (Walter), Michael B. Jordan (Bryan), Brie Larson (Bryan’s associate) and Tim Blake Nelson (perjured prisoner), for starters—give authenticity to a triumph of justice served that serves as a cautionary tale of other instances of justice denied. The film has a fine hi-def transfer; extras comprise deleted scenes and making-of featurettes. 


Police Squad—The Complete Series 


From the creators of the zany 1980 spoof Airplane!—the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams—comes this cult 1982 TV series (it only lasted six episodes), another spoof starring Leslie Nielsen as a doofus detective who manages to solve crimes. 




Police Squad is a hit-or-miss accumulation of physical comedy, one-liners, asides, puns, in-jokes and tongue-in-cheek parody: Nielsen is game, and the opening-credit sequences are fun, but like Airplane!, your mileage may vary. It looks adequate on Blu; extras are commentaries on three episodes, archival Nielsen interview, gag reel, featurette and casting tests.


VOD of the Week

Once Were Brothers—Robbie Robertson and the Band 


Director Daniel Roher engagingly recounts the eventful musical life of Robbie Robertson, leader of the Band, the great original roots-rock whose classic tunes like “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek” remain staples of rock’n’roll playlists.




Robertson candidly discusses his early life in Canada, his move to the States and finding his future bandmates, working with Bob Dylan and, later—following the Last Waltz concert film—Martin Scorsese, for whom he has scored and compiled music for several films. 


CDs of the Week 

Exiles in Paradise—Émigré Composers in Hollywood 


So many composers left Europe during the Nazi era for the U.S. that it was inevitable that several would settle in and around Los Angeles, where they wrote music for movies and gave Hollywood a cultural cachet it had heretofore lacked.




This sterling disc collects short works by 11 of these men—a 12th work, an arrangement of George Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” is by violinist Jascha Heifitz, another émigré—including the familiar (Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Rachmaninoff), the obscure (Godowsky, Achron, Gruenberg) and those best-known for their film scores (Korngold, Waxman, Rosza). These beguiling miniatures are attractively performed by cellist Brinton Averil Smith and pianist Evelyn Chen.


Hindemith—Kammermusik, Volume 1 


Early in his career, German composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) wrote several concertos for soloists and orchestra under the rubric Kammermusiken. The four concertos collected on this superb recording, composed between 1921 and 1925, showcase Hindemith’s talent for balancing the virtuosic demands of the soloist parts and the orchestral underpinnings, notably on Kammermusik No. 1 & 2 (pianists) and No. 3 (cellist).




With Christopher Eschenbach adroitly conducting small ensembles culled from the Kornberg Academy Soloists and Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra, the first-rate solo performers are pianists Xi Zhai and Christopher Park and cellist Bruno Philippe.

April '20 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Their Finest Hour—5 British WWII Classics 

(Film Movement Classics)

This excellent boxed set, comprising a quintet of British films set during the Second World War—Alberto Calvacanti’s memorable “what if” about a Nazi invasion of England, Went the Day Well? (1942); Guy Hamilton’s tense The Colditz Story (1955), concerning POWs trying to escape an impregnable Nazi fortress; Michael Anderson’s The Dam Busters (1955), the astonishing true story of the race to make bombs to take out crucial Nazi dams; Leslie Norman’s effective re-creation of the Allies’ retreat from the north of France, Dunkirk (1958); and J. Lee Thompson’s absorbing desert adventure, Ice Cold in Alex (1958)—is recommended for those who love old war films or simply well-made and inspiring dramas.


Not only are all five B&W features restored in superlative hi-def transfers, there’s a plethora of valuable extras on four of the discs (only Went the Day Well? has no bonues): The Colditz Story includes a documentary, Colditz RevealedThe Dam Busters includes a making-of, two documentaries about the actual men who took part, and other featurettes; Dunkirk includes newsreel footage, 1940 documentary short Young Veteran, actor Sean Barrett interview and actor John Mills’ home movies; and Ice Cold in Alex includes an excerpt from A Very British War Movie documentary, more  of Mills’ home movies, interviews with scholar Melanie Williams and actress Sylvia Syms and a featurette on director J. Lee Thompson.



(Warner Archive)

William Wyler’s 1936 adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel (and stage version)—concerning a long-time married American couple, Sam and Fran, who find, after their opposing responses to “sophisticated” Europe, that their relationship is deteriorating—is a mature treatment of subject matter that might have seemed too much for its day (including a brief shot of what looks like the wife’s side boob).




Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton are splendid as Sam and Fran, Mary Astor is irresistible as Edith, the expatriate who catches Sam’s eye, and the insights into and humor about American and European cultural differences remain pertinent and potent. The film, which has undergone a recent restoration, looks terrific in rich black and white; the lone extra is a 1937 radio version of the play/novel.




Carl Maria von Weber’s grand romantic opera suffers from a ludicrous libretto, but the contrived tale of a young woman who must prove her fidelity prior to her wedding is dominated from the start by Weber’s ravishing music.




This 2018 Vienna production, staged with passionate feeling if little clarity by Christof Loy, succeeds thanks to its leading ladies: Jacquelyn Wagner as the heroine Euryanthe and Theresa Kronthaler as the antagonist Eglantine are compelling in their acting and brilliant in their singing. Constantin Trinks leads the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra and Arnold Schoenberg Choir with assurance. Both hi-def video and audio are splendid.


VOD of the Week

The Whistlers 


In Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s latest whimsical dramedy, a shady police inspector travels to a remote island to learn a local whistling language to try nabbing criminals more crooked than he is. If there’s chutzpah in building a shaggy-dog story around such a ludicrous concept, Porumboiu runs with it, although he takes it only so far before the seams begin to show.




Luckily, the pace doesn’t lag, the film is fairly short, and there’s a fine cast, led by model turned actress Catrinel Marlon, playing a formidable femme fatale named—tongue-in-cheekly, for those who remember Rita Hayworth in the ’40s noir classic—Gilda.


CDs of the Week 

J.S. Bach—St. Matthew Passion 


Bach’s towering large-scale oratorio, about the death of Jesus Christ according to the gospel of Matthew, is one of his greatest achievements: even those who aren’t believers have felt the powerful emotional pull of this monumental music for the past three centuries.




This new recording, led by the estimable Bach conductor Masaaki Suzuki, showcases the worthy chorus and orchestra of Bach Collegium Japan, along with a strong vocal cast, led by tenor Benjamin Bruns as the Evangelist, all combining for a truly majestic performance.


Richard Danielpour—The Passion of Yeshua 


Richard Danielpour’s world-premiere oratorio of the passion and death of Jesus Christ takes its cue from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, unsurprisingly; but whereas Bach’s work is the summit of baroque-era German music, Danielpour’s is a thoroughly modern work that alternates its sacred vocal texts between English gospel and Hebrew scripture excerpts.




Conductor JoAnn Falletta impressively marshals the large-scale forces needed, including her own Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, and the singers are heavily invested in Danielpour’s intensely personal vision, which features Jesus’ mother Mary (mezzo J’Nai Bridges) and Mary Magdalene (soprano Hila Plitmann) in prominent roles.

March '20 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 



Although Sam Mendes’ WWI epic is impeccably made—Roger Deakins’ Oscar-winning photography blends seamlessly with extensive CGI work—it’s still one of the most gimmicky and dishonest movies I’ve ever seen.




Mendes’ film may be a tribute to his grandfather, a Great War veteran, but 1917 plays out like a remote video game, as soldiers find themselves in increasingly contrived situations that become quite risible—I was surprised when, after the hero falls into water, a shark didn’t attack him. The film looks impressive in hi-def; extras comprise Mendes’ and Deakins’ commentaries, making-of featurettes and interviews.


Come to Daddy 


This meretricious movie intends to be shocking with its sudden and protracted outbursts of violence, but director Ant Timpson merely piles ridiculous plot twists on his ludicrous characters’ backs, thereby creating an incoherent mess.




Unfortunately, none of this is enlivened by the presence of Elijah Wood and Martin Donovan, who do their best with what’s essentially an impossible situation. There’s a fine hi-def transfer.








The Grudge 


Taking off from the original Japanese horror flick and the American remake, this gratuitous reboot is heavy on the gore but sorely lacking in any ideas or originality, which is surprising considering that director Nicolas Pesce’s debut The Eyes of My Mother showed flashes of brilliance.




Here, however, Pesce settles for jump-scares and “yuck” moments, which does the movie and its game cast no favors. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include 30 minutes (!) of alternate and extended scenes as well as short featurettes.


Shooting the Mafia 

(Cohen Media)

The irrepressible Letizia Battaglia, 84 years young when director Kim Longinotto interviewed her for this enlightening documentary, is the center of a tale that is violent, sad, angry, regretful, but ultimately—unbelievably—hopeful. Photographer Battaglia’s lens caught all the inhumanity and horridness of a fraught period in Italian (and, more specifically, Sicilian) history, when the mob made mincemeat of the idea of justice with shocking killings of judges.




This film could stand as a pendant to Marco Bellocchio’s electrifying The Traitor, which covers the same ground, but Longinotto has someone Bellocchio doesn’t: Battaglia, wisely world-weary but upbeat. There’s a superior hi-def transfer; lone extra is a Longinotto interview.







Die Walküre 

(Opus Arte)

The most popular of Richard Wagner’s four Ring operas, with four hours of music, is notoriously punishing on its performers, but in Keith Warner’s unaffecting 2018 production from London’s Royal Opera, the lead roles are assayed by a formidable cast: Emily Magee (Sieglinde), Stuart Skelton (Siegmund), Ain Anger (Hunding), John Lundgren (Wotan), Sarah Connolly (Fricka) and Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde).




Antonio Pappano ably conducts the superb Royal Opera orchestra, with stand-out sequences like “The Ride of the Valkyries” and “Magic Fire Music” beautifully played if too abstractedly staged by Warner. Hi-def video and audio are top-notch.


DVDs of the Week

Back to the Fatherland 

(First Run Features)

Kat Rohrer and Gil Levanon’s intermittently illuminating documentary follows several Israelis with German ancestry who have decided to return to their European homeland despite its obvious anti-Semitic history.




Rohrer and Levanon (she’s Austrian and is the granddaughter of a Nazi officer; he’s Israeli and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor) interview these young people and their grandparents, who are understandably perplexed over their decision, even though some of them agree to return to Europe for a visit, which triggers difficult but necessary recollections. 







I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians 

(Big World Pictures)

Romanian director Radu Jude’s films relentlessly dissect his country’s checkered history, like this latest 140-minute meditation on the massacre of Jews in Odessa by Romanian troops during WWII. 




Barbarians often seems more like a master’s thesis than a film; the director’s stand-in, a young woman planning a re-creation of the massacre, has intense discussions about guilt, responsibility, ethnic cleansing and even Steven Spielberg with a scholarly skeptic. Luckily for Jude, actress Ioana Iacob’s perspicacious and winning presence allows this dense material about inhumanity and memory to come across with clarity and power. 


CDs of the Week

Aspects of America—Pulitzer Edition 


This valuable disc collects three American composers’ works which won the Pulitzer Prize in music over the span of a half-century: Howard Hanson’s moody Symphony No. 4—appropriately subtitled “Requiem”—was the 1944 winner; Walter Piston’s exuberant Symphony No. 7 was the 1961 winner; and Morton Gould’s evocative suite for string orchestra, Stringmusic, was the 1995 winner.




This latest volume in the Aspects of America series is another winner, with Carlos Kalmar deftly conducting the Oregon Symphony.






Edvard Grieg—Violin Sonatas


Norwegian master Edvard Grieg is best known for his orchestral works, particularly his piano concerto and his incidental music to August Strindberg’s play Peer Gynt; so this disc, comprising his three violin sonatas, is most welcome.




Spanning two decades in his composing life, Grieg’s sonatas move from youthful buoyance to mature elegance, and Norwegian violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing performs them sensitively and with keen feeling, as does her pianist, Simon Trpčeski. Hemsing also contributes an attractive short solo piece based on a local folk tune.   

March '20 Digital Week III

4K of the Week 

Seven Worlds One Planet 

(BBC Earth)

The latest indelible BBC exploration of our amazing natural world is this seven-part series—each episode covering one of the continents—narrated by the indefatigable David Attenborough, which displays the myriad ways that current cinematographers and directors can drop us in the middle of such eye-popping scenes as cheetahs running down topis (African antelopes) or miniscule frogs feeding their even more microscopic tadpoles.




Drone photography has been perfected to such a great degree that image after unforgettable image jumps off the screen, sometimes literally. Needless to say, in hi-def, all seven hours look simply breathtaking; extras are short on-set featurettes.


Blu-rays of the Week



Spike Lee’s most incendiary post-Do the Right Thing movie, this 2000 joint takes on the entertainment industry’s institutional racism, as a desperate TV creator (Marlon Wayans) hits on the idea of a new minstrel show—complete with black performers in blackface—which becomes an unexpected hit. As usual with Lee, powerful moments sit next to trite, tone-deaf sequences; also, as usual, the movie goes on too long, making its points repeatedly but to considerably less effect.




But this might be Lee’s best-cast film: Wayans, Savion Glover, Tommy Davidson, Michael Rappaport, Mos Def and Jada Pinkett give firsr-rate performances. Criterion’s packed edition has a decent hi-def transfer (the film was shot digitally) and a plethora of extras, including Lee’s commentary, deleted scenes, music videos, parody commercials, vintage making-of documentary, and new interviews with Lee, Glover, Davidson and costume designer Ruth E. Carter.







Beau Brummell 

(Warner Archive)

The legendary dandy—whose picaresque adventures have long been a mainstay on both the stage and screen—is played by the dashing Stewart Granger in Curtis Bernhardt’s 1954 production, which also features a dazzling young Elizabeth Taylor as his love interest and the great Peter Ustinov as his foil, King George.




Although dramatically saggy, the movie does earn points for its sumptuous costume design and color photography (the latter by Oswald Morris) and the fine score by Miklos Rosza and Richard Addinsell. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer.


La bella dormente nel bosco 


Ottorino Respighi—famed for his richly-scored orchestral works The Pines of Rome and The Fountains of Rome—also wrote several operas of melodic richness and stageworthy drama, such as this version of Sleeping Beauty originally created as a marionette opera, then revised and reorchestrated for the opera house.




Director Leo Muscato’s 2017 production at the opera house in the city of Cagliari (on the Italian island of Sardinia) is a delightful frolic, nicely played by the musicians and appealingly sung by the cast. The hi-def video and audio are top-notch.


DVDs of the Week 



In 2007, legendary designer Yves Saint-Laurent had his final fashion show in New York, and Olivier Meyrou’s fly-on-the-wall documentary presents many backstage scenes and more intimate moments that drew the ire of Saint-Laurent’s partner Pierre Bergé—who figures prominently in the film—and he blocked its release. 




But after Bergé's death in 2017 (Saint-Laurent died in 2008), it's finally been released. Shot in appropriately grainy black and white—with occasional bursts of color—which makes it seem all the more like a clandestinely shot exposé, Celebration (certainly an ironic title) is a warts-and-all portrait of the designer as a frail, old man.




Alla Kovgan’s documentary about the great Merce Cunningham—who died in 2009—manages to pack an astonishing amount about Cunningham’s storied dancing and choreographing career into 93 minutes, from his groundbreaking collaborations with composer John Cage to his international celebrity and enormous influence in subsequent decades.




We hear Cunningham’s own words as we watch his dances, both in archival footage and in new performances by current dancers in his company. The lone quibble: this stunning-looking film was shot in 3D, but not only is it not being released on 3D Blu-ray, it’s only available on DVD, so a lot of the visual brilliance is lost. What a missed chance! The lone extra is a short featurette by Kovgan explaining one of the sequences.


CDs of the Week 

Daniel Hope—Belle Epoque 

(Deutsche Grammophon)

Violinist Daniel Hope’s latest recording is two discs’ worth of the most representative music of the by-gone Belle Epoque era, which flourished in Europe—and particularly in Paris—in the early years of the 20th century.




The first disc comprises orchestral music, starting with Chausson’s extraordinary Concerto in D major, which Hope dispatches with elegance. Works by Debussy, Massenet, Strauss, Schoenberg and Elgar (a pair) round out this lovely disc. The quirky but fun chamber-music disc consists mainly of miniatures by the likes of Faure, Berg, Webern, Zemlinsky, Ravel, Enescu, Bridge and Hahn, all played beautifully by Hope and his musical partners.


Ellen Reid—prism 

(Decca Gold)

Winner of last year’s Pulitzer Prize in music, Ellen Reid’s emotionally shattering opera (with an articulate and often blunt libretto by Roxie Perkins) explores the aftereffects of sexual assault in a non-linear and kaleidoscopic work that, based on this otherwise excellent recording, would probably be even more powerful onstage. But, as this faultless performance shows, the chamber orchestra is handled brilliantly and with endless displays of resourcefulness by Reid, especially in the pounding percussion segments, astringent sounds that sit side-by-side with her gorgeous melodies.




Julian Wachner ably conducts the NOVUS NY ensemble and the choir of Trinity Wall Street, and Anna Schubert and Rebecca Jo Lamb give performances of fierce intensity. A bonus track is violist Nadia Sirota’s haunting rendition of “Lumee’s Dream,” an excerpt from prism.

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